All this week, PBS is looking at guns and violence in America in a series called After Newtown. CPR’s Megan Verlee contributed to that reporting, with a story that airs tonight in The NewsHour, focusing on how Colorado is grappling with gun control in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. The following is a version of that piece, focusing on three Coloradans who have a personal connection to guns and are trying to help shape the debate.
Learn more about the series, After Newtown. And listen tonight at 6pm for the full version of this story, including interviews with lawmakers, activists, law enforcement.
To find when the rest of the programs air locally in Colorado, please check the schedule for Rocky Mountain PBS.
[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]
Reporter Megan Verlee: Jessica Watts knows firsthand the tragedy of gun violence. Last July her cousin, Jonathan Blunk, was among the 12 casualties of the Aurora theater shooting. It was the third random shooting to touch her life. Her husband watched fellow students die during the Columbine massacre. And she babysat for Emily Keyes, killed in a 2006 attack at Platte Canyon high school. Mementos of that violence haunt her throughout the metro area.
Jessica Watts: "If you drive to the west side of town, there is Columbine High School. You drive east there is the Aurora theater. So there's always a reminder somewhere where so much tragedy has happened."
Reporter: Watts has long supported stricter gun control laws, but she never considered getting politically involved, until losing her cousin.
Watts: "I felt like it was something positive that I can put my energy towards to kind of build on the grieving process. So that I wasn't necessarily be drowning in sorrow all the time."
Reporter: Watts has thrown her support behind gun control bills being proposed at both the federal and state level. Earlier this month, she provided a personal face when Democrats unveiled their gun bills at the state Capitol.
Watts [at press conference]: "Gun violence is destroying our families and our communities, taking our loved ones. And we've had enough."
Reporter: The new energy that Watts and others bring to the gun control side of the debate worries many who oppose tougher firearms regulations.
Richard Taylor: "It's just a feel good, knee-jerk reaction to some of these awful incidents that have happened."
Reporter: Richard Taylor manages the Firing Line gun store and shooting range in Aurora, less than a mile away from this summer’s theater attack. To say he’s skeptical about what’s being debated at the state Capitol would be an understatement.
Taylor: "The only people that are really going to be affected by any of this legislation are law-abiding citizens. The criminals don't care already, so is it going to affect them? It's not."
Reporter: The gun control bills could impact Taylor’s business in several ways. He would have to start collecting a fee for background checks. And he’d be required to perform those checks for people buying a gun from a private individual. Taylor thinks that would be difficult.
Taylor: "That's going to probably mean we're going to have to employ a couple more people, we'll probably obviously going to have to charge for that. A lot more work and paperwork and time and effort involved, absolutely."
Reporter: Taylor thinks the only change needed is more vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws. Not all gun owners are so comfortable with the status quo, though. Aurora resident and gun collector Cody Burrows says he’s seen things that make him uncomfortable. On a recent visit to a gun store he watched a young man walk in and ask for an ‘assault rifle,’ a term those familiar with guns don’t use.
Cody Burrows: "The store clerk immediately knew this was somebody who really didn't have training. Who really didn't belong with a gun until he'd figured it out.”
Reporter: "Did that kid walk out with a gun?”
Burrows: “I believe he did, I believe he did. But it was one of those where no one felt good about it but the kid.”
Reporter: Scenes like that prompted Burrows to develop his own solution, a middle ground as he sees it. He wants the state to require all gun owners to meet criteria similar to what’s required now for a concealed carry permit: completing a class and passing a test. They’d need more extensive training before buying higher-powered weapons.
Burrows: “Really what I think it comes down to is that if you have to have a license to drive, and you have to have a license to even catch a fish, it's not too much to ask that you have a license to carry a gun."
Reporter: Burrows says he’s talked to many gun owners who would be okay with more regulation, if it means they could own the firearms they want, and not have to register them. He’s meeting with lawmakers on his idea too, but hasn’t been able to drum up official interest.
Burrows: "The pro-gun are dug in. And they're dug in every bit as much as the pro-regulation. So you know they're, there isn't a group right now that is, that is talking about a happy medium."
Reporter: Certainly finding any middle ground at the state legislature looks like a lost cause these days. The gun controls that are on the table have divided Republicans and Democrats more deeply than any other issue so far this session. But the same division that is driving lawmakers apart is drawing more ordinary Coloradans into the public conversation around guns.